By Gare Joyce in Burnaby, B.C. | Photography by Jimmy Jeong
By Gare Joyce in Burnaby, B.C. | Photography by Jimmy Jeong
How a 25-year-old homebody became a leader in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room

Labour Day was just 96 hours off and Morgan Rielly was putting in his last weight-room session of the summer in Burnaby, B.C. He had arrived at Fortius Sports not long after dawn and before other NHL and minor-league clientele checked in. “Normally I come a little later but I wanted to beat traffic coming from West Van,” he said. “And to get it over with. I’ve got a flight this afternoon.”

Before his scheduled exertions, he stretched out in the gym next to the weight room. A basketball was sitting at courtside but he didn’t pick it up. Occasionally he has this summer. His trainer, Molly O’Brien, had the video right on an iPhone: Rielly picking up a ball and gliding in for an uncontested layup — or at least what looked at first like it would be a lay-up. With seemingly no strain, the Leafs defenceman had the ball above the rim and threw it down for an authoritative dunk. Some who get up as high are shorter, and some who flush it are thicker, but no one listed at six-foot-one and 220 pounds, should make it look that easy, especially if he gave up the game in grade school. Says O’Brien: “Morgan could probably have played almost any game he chose. He has amazing sprint speed for his size. I’ve always thought he could have switched over to football and been a star.”

Over the next 75 minutes, Rielly worked his way through a schedule of rapid-fire reps with just the barest of pauses between sets. Trainers and assistants gave him a few prompts but no cheerleading was really necessary — it would only waste precious oxygen.

When Rielly emerged from the dressing room, he looked more refreshed than stressed. If you arrived late, you would have thought that he was just arriving, not already done for the day and the summer. He said goodbye to the staff in the gym and the trainers he’d worked with. He’d be flying east on Labour Day, to Toronto.

This afternoon, though, he was going to fly in a different direction, up to Savary Island — a 40-minute helicopter ride; no time for the ferry. There he’d join his parents, Andy and Shirley, who had already checked into a friend’s place.

The schedule meant a lot of packing and unpacking and repacking and time in the air would take up the last days of Rielly’s summer, but he wasn’t about to leave for Toronto a few days early. Every year it’s the same, squeezing out as much time as he can in his hometown. “I guess there are a lot of places I could go in the off-season,” Rielly said over a plate of eggs and sausage in the gym’s cafeteria. “I just want to decompress and I feel the difference when I’m back here, literally when the plane touches down. That’s one of the best feelings I know. I’m not stressed here. It’s my comfort zone. I act differently between the two places, Toronto and Vancouver. The pace of life is different here — maybe it has something to do with the Leafs’ season but that’s only one of the things in the mix.

“The main reason I come back here, though, is family. We’re close. I spend a lot of time with my parents. We’re a small family but we’re really close and I think it’s important to spend time together.”

In fact, Rielly’s parents had dinner at his house two nights before. When he became a home-owner after signing his second contract, he bought a place just 10 minutes from where he grew up and from his brother Connor’s place. He likes the simplicity and continuity. He’s single, has no obligations over the summer beyond preparations for the winter. He can determine what he wants to do and when and where he wants to do it. He’s going to put in the work at the gym, going to skate with a regular cast that comes out, going to see some friends who go back all the way to grade school, going to rinse and repeat as he resets. The irony is plain: He had to go away to become a player at all; has had to adapt to another city far from his comfort zone to become an elite player; and it seems likely that pattern will hold over the course of his adult life — someone who, at a glance anyway, passes for a homebody will always find himself pulled from home.

The cycles of life move fast in sports. Morgan Rielly, not even remotely venerable at 25, is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ longest-standing figure. Not the oldest in the lineup — Rielly was going into Grade 2 when Jason Spezza first went to an NHL training camp in Ottawa; he was wondering where he’d get picked in the WHL draft when John Tavares was anointed as the saviour of the New York Islanders. Both Spezza and Tavares grew up in the GTA and know the market. Still, Rielly has seen more of it and the league from the vantage point of the Leafs dressing room. He grew up with the team. He went from boy to man in the crucible on Bay Street.

Conversations among fans often focus on whose team the Leafs are these days. The likely candidates are, in no certain order, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mike Babcock, Mitch Marner, Kyle Dubas and MLSE. Rielly predates the players, the coach and the exec as well as ownership — yes, when Rielly was drafted, the team was still owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Coming into training camp, chatter centred around the captain’s ‘C’ — who should wear the history-freighted letter. Would it raise Matthews’s sublime game or would the team be best served in messaging by Tavares, the respected veteran with an unsurpassed work ethic? Contrarians threw Rielly’s name into the mix, making the case that leadership is driven by more than skills or stats or dollar figures. Rielly did wear an ‘A’ last year and in recent seasons when reporters went looking after a tough loss, he always stepped in front of the cameras and mics and notepads, and never took refuge in the trainer’s room. “Some guys don’t like it and sometimes I don’t know why anyone would be interested in what I have to say, but I accept it as part of the job,” he says.

The Leafs’ decision to name Tavares captain caught no one by surprise. “When John came last year, the chemistry in the room changed,” Rielly says. “No one works harder and when you see that, you feel like you have to raise your commitment, too. There are some things he can do with the puck that are amazing — working as hard as him doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to do that stuff. But no one wants to be seen as giving anything less on or off the ice when you’re next to him.”

Rielly recognizes that while captaincy is limited to one per team, there’s no limit on leadership; with championship teams and those who reasonably aspire, it’s leaders, plural. And Rielly can better understand the lives of others in the room than Tavares and Matthews — those who were first-overall picks, who were always destined for the elite, who were designated as phenoms by the time they reached the peewee ranks and franchise players in the best league in the world before they were out of their teens. The star centres were ever centres of attention and only know secondhand the adversities faced by the rank-and-file. Rielly never enjoyed that sort of status, nothing like a preferred berth. Like the vast majority of players in the league, he suffered growing pains and sucked it up during awful downs when it looked like there’d never be ups to redeem them.

Morgan Rielly will tell anyone who asks that he takes after his mother more than his father in temperament. “That sounds about right,” says Andy, a lumber salesman. Shirley will agree, grudgingly, though she’ll also point out that many would strain to see parallels between her famous son’s career in the NHL and hers as a cancer researcher, now retired. “I am by nature a detail person,” she says. “If you give me something to look at, I have to peel it away until I get to the very, very, very core … It’s a real dog-with-a-bone kind of mentality and that’s just my personality, so research appealed to me.

“Morgan is much the same way, the dog with a bone. He attacked one thing — playing hockey — and he won’t let go. There’s also patience that’s required in the lab and the arena, and the ability to work on a team … to do your job to the best of your ability and trust others to do theirs.”

Shirley worked as a nurse before returning to school to become a researcher, and Morgan also chose a more challenging path than a status quo that many would have settled for. “Morgan was your average kid in almost every way — a happy kid,” Shirley says. “He did well in school and had a nice group of friends. He wasn’t above the curve in that regard. The difference was that he wanted so desperately to play competitive hockey.”

Though Vancouver might seem like it could offer great opportunities to a young player, circumstances in prosperous West Van, an object of neighbourhood envy, worked against Rielly — yes, he grew up comfortable but the local program, despite boasting a few good players, lacked the depth to be successful. And because of residency requirements, he couldn’t jump to other stronger programs. “Up to bantam, I enjoyed just playing in West Van with my friends from school and staying close to home,” he says. “But I knew I needed more challenges. In the hockey world, Vancouver players, players from B.C., have a reputation for being soft …” Here he takes a dramatic pause. “… -ish. I hated that. I wanted to get past that. I didn’t want that reputation.”

Shirley recalls his motivation to walk away from the West Van program as more emotional: “When Morgan’s team went to some tournaments and didn’t have great success, the losses would be devastating to him but he’d also be upset because the losses didn’t seem to bother some of his teammates. He wanted to be in an environment where everybody felt the same as he did about winning.”

After his minor bantam year, Rielly attended a hockey camp on the campus of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask. When he got back to West Van, he told his parents he wanted to go to school at the historic hockey hothouse. “It had blown my mind,” he says. “I knew it was going to be an adjustment, going away, but at that age I wanted to be my own person. I always thought I’d figure it out and make my way no matter where I was. I wanted to be outside the Vancouver bubble.”

Rielly wasn’t walking into any guarantees. Given his background playing in a not-always-competitive program in West Van, he had no idea where he’d stand. “When I got there, I didn’t even know if I was going to make the top AAA team,” he says. “If I didn’t make it, then the other team was like house league. It could have been difficult if you don’t make [the AAA team] in your draft year for the Dub.”

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The decision to go to Notre Dame worked out better than Rielly could have imagined. He made the AAA team that season and was called up to the midget squad for a handful of games during the winter. Andy Rielly says his son had a lot of support from upperclassmen, most notably future first-round pick Jaden Schwartz. “It’s up to older players to show the way for the younger kids,” says Schwartz, who raised the Stanley Cup with St. Louis last June. “Morgan was always going to be alright. He always had a smile on his face and stayed out of trouble. His ability on the ice was never in question, though.”

By the spring, Rielly had a comfort level at the school. “I don’t think I was crying when I left West Van but I felt like it when it was time to go home,” he says. “It was harder to leave than to go there. It was a great fit.”

After his first year away from home, the Moose Jaw Warriors drafted him second overall. “Maybe Moose Jaw wasn’t my first choice but I wasn’t going to ask for a trade or anything like that,” Rielly says. “My father told me that I should go wherever I’m drafted and just make the best of it.”

Because its draft is based on the bantam class, Rielly went back for a second year at Notre Dame and captained the AAA team that went on to win the Telus Cup, the national midget championship. In not even two calendar years, he had gone from a kid who worried he was going to get overtaken or lost in the crowd to maybe the top prospect heading to major junior. His was a steep and quick ascent, but one that would soon hit some unexpected turbulence.

Rielly’s NHL draft year was unlike any other elite prospect’s in recent memory and the story of it has been oft told: Going into the season, he was a certain NHL first-round pick based on his play as an underager; before winter hit, though, he tore an ACL and listened as the specialists told him he was done until the summer. In the same situation, the vast majority of young prospects, on the advice of parents and agents, opt for a long, thorough rehab to minimize risks. Instead, Rielly listened to the gloomy prognosis and then set his mind to getting back into the lineup with the dog-with-a-bone dedication. He didn’t travel to away games but was around the rink as well as the weight room on a daily basis. When he made it back into the Moose Jaw lineup for a handful of games in the third round of the playoffs, Maple Leafs scouts saw enough to take him with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Said then-Leafs GM Brian Burke: “We had this kid rated one. Wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true just to build up the pick, but this is a guy [who] had we had the first pick in the draft, we would’ve taken him.”

Rielly’s first NHL training camp came the following January — the beginning of the season was scuttled by the lockout — and it was marked by missteps. “I came to the Leafs’ camp from the world juniors in Russia and I got lost on the way to the rink,” Rielly says. “Then I ended up at a captains’ skate, which I wasn’t supposed to be at so they told me to get off the ice. I didn’t know my way around. All I knew about Toronto was the Leafs, the Raptors, the Blue Jays and the CN Tower. I didn’t know what hit me.”

Rielly was packed off back to Moose Jaw after a week of tumult. He did return, however, when the Warriors’ season ended and a spot on the Marlies blue line opened up. Just as training camp had been an unsparing introduction to life in the Leafs fish bowl, — the GM who’d drafted him was gassed in what was understood to be a purge of the organization’s player ops — so was his stint with the Marlies an eye-opener about the cold business of the game. The lineup was filled with cautionary tales, holdovers from the previous management: Defenceman Mike Komisarek was in the fourth year of a five-year $21.5-million deal and had been undone by expectations raised by the price point; Tim Connolly, the fifth-overall pick in 1999, was in the second season of a two-year, $10-million deal; and winger Tyler Biggs, a first-round pick of the Leafs the year before Rielly, would go on to spend more time in the ECHL than AHL before heading to Europe. The only teammate whose history and future really lined up with Rielly’s was defenceman Jake Gardiner, a former first-rounder of Anaheim. “We were knocked out in the first round but I wound up making a best friend and finding a teammate,” Rielly says.

When Rielly made the big club’s lineup the next season, he skated into what seemed like a potentially toxic situation — though he didn’t recognize it in the beginning. “I didn’t know the league,” he says. “I just saw all these really talented guys and I thought we could really compete and contend.”

The record books show that the Leafs missed out on the playoffs, but that only tells a small part of the story. Dave Nonis was a lame-duck GM, basically a temp in all but title, and his free-agent signing of David Clarkson was blowing up like a joke-shop cigar. Randy Carlyle was coaching with one eye over his shoulder. Phil Kessel was ever the fans’ whipping boy. Rielly went minus-13 in limited play — a number and performance that would shake the confidence of a lot of 10-year veterans. But he came out mostly unscathed. “I wasn’t consumed by it because we weren’t any good,” he says. “If I had a bad game it was okay because I was a 19-year-old rookie and we had a lot of other things going on … a lot of other guys were making a lot of money and losing a lot of games. I don’t know if that helped me but it didn’t hurt me. I learned a lot, but [coming into a struggling organization] protected me and other people were taking the heat. I think I’ve always been pretty good at being aware of the situation I’m in. I appreciated [the veterans] helping me out and I knew things were going to change — that at the trade deadline, players were going to get moved and I was going to get more ice time.”

Rielly learned lessons that only hardship can teach, and when the franchise was at its nadir, hardship seemingly was all it had to offer. Suffice it to say that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander benefited from walking into a more stable, functional organization. And if the Islanders were comparable to the circa 2013 Leafs back in John Tavares’s rookie season, their struggles played out in Uniondale and they were spared the searing spotlight that shone in Toronto before the turnaround.

“It could have been a lot more difficult to be a teenager in that situation if I had been alone,” Rielly says. “Dion, Phil and Joffrey and other guys didn’t let me feel alone. They took me out to eat and showed me around and introduced me to what it meant to be a player with the Leafs — the tough stuff but also the good stuff … I was looked after by the players, like I had been at Notre Dame.”

Over the course of his six seasons, Rielly has shared the Leafs dressing room with 115 players. And while he’s played for just the one franchise, he’s suited up for very different teams: This includes, at the low ebb, a last-place club that was being stripped for parts in an unveiled tank job, and, last season, a group that had designs on playing for the Stanley Cup. You’d think that Rielly would have needed no lessons about impermanence, but last spring and over the summer came the graduate work.

“Last season was the first when the window opened for us and it was a missed opportunity,” he says. “We were up three games to two at home for Game 6 against Boston and at that point Tampa Bay had already been knocked out by Columbus. The window was opened a little wider for us. Then that Game 6 was really strange — a Sunday afternoon game, everything felt a little off-kilter. It got away from us and I still can’t tell you how or why. And we knew going to Boston for Game 7 that the Bruins were going to be really up.”

They were, and topped the Leafs by a 5–1 margin. The loss — the idea that the group couldn’t stay together — took a few days to settle in for Rielly. “When you have a shot, you don’t really think about it being your only shot, but that group last year just had one chance to play together. Things change. It sank in that I played my last game with Jake [Gardiner]. Later on it was clear that other guys I started out in the organization with — Connor [Brown] and Naz [Kadri] were gone. I’m back in Toronto again in a few days for my seventh season, but it’s a different team.”

Predictably, Rielly is more comfortable talking about this season in the abstract than last year in the shattered concrete. The corps of forwards shares the spotlight and three — Tavares, Matthews and Marner — represent massive financial commitments against the team’s capped payroll. Those three figure to be around for a long time, while, with the exception of Rielly, impermanence seems baked in the cake on the Leafs blue line.

“We have three guys who are in the last years of their deals, so they’ll be motivated to have great seasons,” he says. “I think Jake [Muzzin] is going to have a great season — he was in a really tough spot, coming in late, going from one coast to another, going from a home to a hotel room with his wife pregnant. He’ll know the other guys so much better having the full season in Toronto. And Tyson [Barrie] I know a bit and he’s such a smart player. And if you put them together and me with Cody [Ceci] I think that’s a solid top four … When Travis Dermott [who’s out with an injury to start the season] comes back, that’s a blue line you can win a lot of games with and hopefully our window opens a little wider this year.”

There’s a better chance of that, it seems, than the top-four unit in Game 1’s 5–3 win over Ottawa coming back to Toronto in a year’s time. By then, Dermott figures to have a bigger role and maybe one of the recent draftees, Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, will have stepped up into the mix for the top four. And almost certainly by then market forces will further complicate the Leafs roster. With 20 goals last season, Rielly isn’t anyone’s idea of a stay-at-home defenceman, but he’s the only blue-liner in the lineup certain to stay, a matter of talent, contract and character. He didn’t miss a game last season and finished fifth in league all-star voting, missing the Second Team by just a handful of votes that went to Washington’s John Carlson and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, both making $8-million a season to Rielly’s $5-million. In fact, more than 50 NHL defencemen will make more than Rielly this year. Argue amongst yourselves about the identity of the best player in the Leafs’ lineup but you can’t dispute the fact that Rielly gives the best value, dollar for dollar. Canvass the league to find who’s better on that count.

Morgan Rielly was over at his parents’ home a few days before they headed off to Savery Island and he mentioned that he was going out on a friend’s boat the next day.

“Make sure you wear a life jacket,” Shirley told him.

“Mom, I’m 25,” he said.

It wasn’t a lesson in safety so much as the emotional climate in the family home. Until Morgan went away, he sat down with his parents and his brother every night for dinner, and every night they talked about what they’d done that day and what was going to happen tomorrow.

Says Shirley: “There’s a certain well of parenting, and that has to run dry before you give it up. Mine has not run dry yet. I tell Morgan that all the time, I say, ‘I missed out on parenting those years you were in Notre Dame and Moose Jaw and even Toronto. Just because you might be done with it doesn’t mean I’m done.’”

Says Morgan: “I appreciate what my parents did for me, letting me go to Notre Dame when I was so young. I owe Notre Dame so much for everything I have now, where I am. But it wouldn’t have been possible without my parents backing me. Those are debts that can’t really be repaid any other way than being there.”

When Morgan Rielly says he goes back to Vancouver for the summer because of “family,” it’s shorthand. More is in play than that. Somehow in the fish bowl of professional hockey, he’s managed to see the big picture and keep things in perspective. When he’s on a helicopter heading to a remote island to see his parents — who sat down for dinner with him two nights before, who came over and sat by his pool the night before that, who’ll fly across the country to see him play more than a few times during the year — he’s trying to do right by them. Given that he spends most of his year in a business with not just highs and lows but comings and goings, maybe it shouldn’t surprise that he’s drawn to the constants in his life.

Andy Rielly says his younger son possesses a quality little discussed in scouting reports or on game broadcasts: empathy. At 25, he has figured out that the most valuable thing he can give someone is time. It was, his father says, a lesson he learned a long time ago. “Morgan does the right things without having to be told. He has a good moral compass that way. I was in Saskatoon, getting a bite to eat after a game, and someone working in the bar came up to me and asked if I was one of the Notre Dame parents. I told her that I was Morgan’s dad and she said he’d been a huge help to her son who was a couple of years behind Morgan. He was looking after someone just like Jaden [Schwartz] helped him out. He’s a quick study on that stuff and he figures out what’s the important stuff to take away.”

Morgan Rielly’s career hasn’t always been charmed in his time with the Leafs, even if through the worst seasons he felt “protected,” which is a form of luck, you’d suppose. He doesn’t need to tell you he gets it; he shows that he gets it. He doesn’t need the spotlight or the captaincy to do the right things. He’s not the franchise player, not the face of the franchise. He might already be something more important than that: its foundation.

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Jimmy Jeong